Through two rounds, I have predicted only one series winner incorrectly but the only one I got completely right was the Kings/Sharks going to seven games. I was a bit off on the number of games for the rest of them. Pittsburgh/Ottawa ended up being far less competitive than I predicted and I was one game off on both the Boston/New York and Chicago/Detroit series. So in other words, I've done fairly well with my playoff predictions thus far and will look to continue that in the Conference Finals.
With there being so much talk of how "anything can happen" in the post-season, it's kind of ironic that the final four teams were all among the NHL's elite during the regular season in terms of even strength territorial play and many writer's pre-season picks to win the cup. Each of the remaining are also the last four clubs to win the Cup, so there will likely be a lot of complaining about how there is no parity in the NHL now but you know what? As a hockey fan, I'm pretty excited about the rest of the playoffs because these are four excellent teams and we should be in for some very entertaining games to close out the year. It might be "boring" to see recent Cup winners back in the finals, but I think the quality of hockey we will see in the finals will leave everyone satisfied.
After the jump, I'll give my take on which teams will make it out of the Conference Finals.
Western Conference: Chicago Blackhawks vs. Los Angeles Kings
Regular Season Comparison
|5v5 FenClose||5v5FenTied||5v5 Sh%||5v5 Sv%||5v5 GF/60||5v5 GA/60|
|PP Sh%||PP SF/60||PK Sv%||PK SA/60|
Going by regular season play, the Kings have a slight advantage at even strength but the Hawks match up against them well so it could go either way in a seven-game series. The Kings also have a pretty huge advantage in both special teams categories, as the Hawks have been pretty bad at both creating shots on the power play and preventing them on the penalty kill. However, both clubs' regular season play hasn't exactly held up in the post-season, so it's worth taking a closer look at the matchups to see who has more of an advantage in this matchup.
Blackhawks Forwards vs. Kings Defense
Jonathan Toews has been very cold with only two even strength points this post-season, but the rest of the team has more than made up for it. Patrick Sharp and Patrick Kane have been putting on a scoring clinic and they've also received plenty of contributions from depth forwards like Andrew Shaw & Bryan Bickell. Oh, and there's that Marian Hossa guy who has also been pretty good. This just shows the depth of the Blackhawks and how much they can hurt you even when their stars aren't scoring.
Even with Toews' scoring struggles, he has done a lot to contribute in other areas, as he has been a possession monster at even strength. I feel that it's only a matter of time before he breaks through, especially with Joel Quinneville putting Sharp & Kane on his line and giving them a nice territorial boost. Youngster Brandon Saad also should be due to start producing soon given how well he has played without getting rewarded.
Quinneville's been using an interesting strategy this post-season as he is heavily protecting his top-six territorially and making his fourth line take basically all of the defensive zone starts. It has allowed his first and third lines to have some mightily impressive possession numbers (playing Minnesota probably boosted those, too) and a good few of them have reaped the benefits on the scoresheet. The only top-six players not getting heavily protected are Michal Handzus and Marian Hossa. The latter hasn't had any trouble with these assignments but Handzus is drowning and if there is a matchup Los Angeles can expose, it will likely be against whichever line he is centering. Hossa might be good enough to carry him, but it might be tough if Quinneville trusts him enough to play against the likes of Anze Kopitar and Mike Richards.
Let's see who they are up against.
Territorially, LA has been taking a beating this post-season and their defense has really been getting hammered. The Kings have had a tough road thus far, as they've faced two very good possession teams in the Blues and the Sharks, but the Kings are normally elite in this regard so it's kind of a surprise to see them struggle so much. Still, there is a lot to like about the Kings defense and it all starts with Drew Doughty.
He hasn't been dominant this post-season, but he is an elite defenseman and I'm sure that Darryl Sutter will have him on the ice whenever Toews is. One thing that probably is holding Doughty back is the fact that he is saddled with Robyn Regehr as a defense partner. While Regehr has a reputation of being a "crease-clearing" defensemen that you "need" in the playoffs, his numbers indicate that he is more of a boat anchor because whenever he is on the ice, the Kings are usually stuck in their own zone. The Kings might have issues containing Chicago's top line if Regehr stays on this pairing and continues to struggle.
Chicago loading up their top line with Kane, Sharp & Toews might actually work out in the Kings favor, because their second defense pairing of Slava Voynov & Rob Scuderi has also struggled in the post-season and might have their hands full if they have to play against Hossa, Sharp or Kane. Quinneville's obsession with Handzus might save them from taking a lot of damage, though. The Kings also have solid depth on defense, as they have plenty of reliable third-pairing options to turn to and might be able to contain Chicago's dangerous third line. They've done a good job, but Chicago has better forward depth than any team they have played thus far, which makes this an interesting matchup.
Ultimately, Los Angeles' hope of containing the Hawks is going to rest on how well Doughty plays against Toews' line. If he and Regehr can at least break even against that unit, then they might not have to completely rely on Jonathan Quick to win this series for them. Although, he could easily do that if he continues to post a save percentage above .940. LA's penalty kill has also performed very well in the playoffs and is going up against a struggling Chicago power play, which might be a saving grace for the Kings if they get steamrolled at even strength.
The Kings defense doesn't exactly match up favorably against Chicago's forward corps, but the play of their forwards might be able to salvage this.
Kings Forwards vs. Chicago's Defense
While the Kings defense has been taking a lot of damage, their forwards have been much better territorially, specifically their first line of Kopitar, Williams & Brown. I'm not sure if Sutter will plan to use these three in a tough-minute role against Toews' line or try to get a favorable matchup against Handzus, but they could be thrown to the wolves if Richards' line continues to struggle. If so, then I would expect Kyle Clifford to stay on the third or fourth line and kept away from Toews at all costs.
I'm not sure what's been up with Richards & Carter, but they have been really struggling territorially this post-season and will need to be a lot better than they have thus far. Sutter has shaken up his lines a little bit and one thing he has done is place Dustin Penner on this line, which has given them a bit of a jolt and could boost their ability to drive the play forward more than Dwight King has.
The Kings forward depth is also a little weaker with Jarrett Stoll injured, but they've seen some good play out of the likes of Brad Richardson and Tyler Toffoli in his place. Factor that in with the strong play from Trevor Lewis & Dustin Penner and I'm not too worried about the Kings depth pieces. The one area where they'll miss Stoll the most is on the penalty kill, which may not be too much of an issue with Chicago's power play being ice cold.
An underlying concern with the Kings offense is that they haven't been able to score much this post-season. They have only 17 five-on-five goals and that combined with their territorial struggles could mean that Jonathan Quick might have to carry them through this round. The Kings are a better team than what they've shown, but they have a tough task ahead with the Hawks and will need that second line to play a lot better than they have thus far. They may also need to get more scoring out of their first line and they will have a big challenge against the Hawks defense.
The Blackhawks usually have Duncan Keith and Niklas Hjalmarsson on the same pairing and playing the toughs, but Quinneville jumbled things up in the Detroit series. Now Keith is with Brent Seabrook and Hjalmarsson is with Johnny Oduya. Hjalmarsson/Oduya ranks first in quality of competition faced, but I am willing to bet that Keith/Seabrook will be on the ice whenever Kopitar is. That leaves Hjalmarsson & Oduya to face the Richards line and Leddy/Rozsival against the Kings depth forwards.
Keith/Seabrook against Kopitar is going to be the key matchup here and I think the Hawks Olympic-caliber defense pairing is good enough to shut-down the Kings first line or at least keep them in check. Oduya & Hjalmarsson against Richards line is going to be a more interesting matchup because even though Richards & Carter have struggled, this pairing has been prone to some bad mistakes in their own end in the post-season. I'm not sure if Oduya is cut out for top-four minutes, but there are far worse options out there and I think this pairing should be fine. Michal Rozsival & Nick Leddy will probably see little ice time against the Kings top forwards, as they are mainly relied on for offense. These two are great as a third-pairing but the Kings can likely expose them if they get one of their top two lines out against them.
What I like about the Hawks defense is that all six players can skate and move the puck well, which allows them to cover their mistakes easier and keep up with some of the best forwards in the league. Chicago's penalty kill has also been excellent in the post-season, allowing only one power play goal against in 12 playoff games which can help put them over the top if they win the battle at even strength
As tough as it is to bet against the defending champs, I think the Hawks have this series. It's silly to base a prediction off 13 games, but the Kings just haven't been that good this post-season when facing top-possession teams and I think the Hawks could give them a lot of trouble. This isn't to say that the Kings can't turn it on, because they are a much better team than what they've shown, but it seems like Quick has been the one winning most of their games while the Hawks have been able to decisively win the even strength battle against their opponents. This has me leaning toward the Hawks and I think they win in seven hard fought games.
Let's move onto the Eastern Conference
Boston Bruins vs. Pittsburgh Penguins
|5v5 FenClose||5v5FenTied||5v5 Sh%||5v5 Sv%||5v5 GF/60||5v5 GA/60|
|PP Sh%||PP SF/60||PK Sv%||PK SA/60|
Going by regular season play, but the Bruins appear to have the advantage at even strength but like the Western Conference series, we have to dig a little deeper in the matchups to see who has the better chance of advancing.
Bruins Forwards vs. Penguins Defense
The Bruins have been lucky enough not to have any injuries up front thus far, so these should be the lines we see for most of the series. The one the Penguins will have to put most of their focus on will be that first line of Krejci, Horton & Lucic, who have been on a tear throughout the playoffs. Krejci leads all players in points this post-season and both Horton & Lucic are producing nicely in addition to that. Favorable territorial assignments has played a huge role in their success, though and a reason why they have been able to get these minutes is the play of Patrice Bergeron's line.
Bergeorn is one of the best two-way centers in the league and has been dominant this post-season while playing tough minutes. He might have his hands full against Crosby's line, but I think Bergeron is good enough to possibly win this matchup. It isn't the first time he's faced off against Crosby and this line did a phenomenal job against the Rangers best forwards last round. I also think Jaromir Jagr has been a great fit on this line. He doesn't have a goal in the playoffs, but he has produced in other ways and should break through sooner or later and if he doesn't, Krejci's line and Marchand have done more than enough to make up for it.
However, a few players the Bruins will probably want to get more out of is Seguin, Kelly & Peverley. These three have been a lot better than their point totals indicate, but eventually they are going to have to chip in offensively because I don't think Boston's fourth line will continue to score at a top-six rate. That being said, I think one of Seguin, Kelly or Peverley will eventually start producing because they've been playing too well to have only two goals between them. They might get stuck with a bad matchup on the road, though because I expect Dan Bylsma to use Sutter's line against Krejci while Crosby plays against Bergeron. That leaves the Bruins third line against Malkin, which could end up very poorly for Boston.
That being said, I like the Bruins forward depth and they do pose some favorable matchups against a Pittsburgh's defense that is pretty slow outside of a few players.
Kris Letang is a Norris candidate and Pittsburgh's best defenseman, but the toughest matchups (i.e. Krejci's line) will likely be handled by Brooks Orpik & Paul Martin. These two have done a fairly good job throughout the playoffs when taking their assignments into consideration and they were very good against Ottawa last round. The Bruins first line is going to be a much more difficult task to shut down, though and these two had issues containing John Tavares in the first round if I remember correctly. Martin is a very good defenseman, though and I expect him and Orpik to put up a fight against Krejci's line.
As for Letang, he should draw the Bergeron line and I hope Bylsma is smart enough to not pair him with Mark Eaton, as he has done many times this post-season. Not that Engelland or Despres are great options, but Eaton is getting destroyed and Letang's excellent play hasn't enough to keep him above water. Matt Niskanen is also used with Letang, so I would expect these two to spend most of their minutes together because I doubt Eaton will last long against Bergeron's line. Douglas Murray has also been awful at keeping the puck out of his own zone and I wouldn't expect him to see many minutes against Boston's top-six while Bylsma has control of the matchups. Seguin or Peverley on Boston's third line can easily exploit him regardless of that, though.
Pittsburgh's defense is being carried by three players and they are dragging a lot of extra baggage, so the Bruins forwards have the advantage here. One thing that could stand in their way is Tomas Vokoun, who has been excellent since taking over for Marc-Andre Fleury in Game 5 of the first round. The Penguins aren't going to be able to contain the Bruins as well as they did the Senators, so they'll likely give up a lot of chances but Vokoun is good enough to bail them out if needed. I see him being a key difference maker, but a lot of Pittsburgh's forwards also fall under that category.
Penguins Forwards vs. Bruins Defense
With the exception of Kunitz, Malkin, Neal and Vitale, all of Pittsburgh's forwards have been getting outplayed territorially at even strength but it really hasn't mattered much at all. Why? Because most of them have been scoring a ridiculous rates. Both Crosby and Malkin's lines have been dominant, they've been getting secondary contributions from guys like Morrow, Cooke and Kennedy. Hell, Jussi Jokinen is their fourth line center and he is producing at a level that would be good enough to be in their top-six. Whether or not the Pens can sustain this is the question.
Puck-possession is generally what wins you a lot of games, but the Pens have some pretty amazing players with finishing ability on their team and can make you pay for just one defensive mistake. The Islanders and Senators found this out the hard way, as the Pens were able to crush both in the transition game despite getting outshot and out-possessed on a lot of nights. This is what having players like Crosby, Malkin & Neal will do for you. Pittsburgh has also been able to make teams play with their power play, as 12 of their goals have come with the man advantage which leads all playoff teams by a pretty wide margin.
It seems that just about everything has gone the Penguins way in the playoffs and I'm not sure if it's luck or the team's elite skill, but it's probably a little of both. Realistically, I don't think Crosby's line can continue to score over 2 points for every 60 minutes if they keep losing the shot battle and Jarome Iginla probably won't keep up this scoring pace either. Still, Boston is going to have to find a way to stop Malkin and that's something most teams haven't figured out how to do.
Pittsburgh's third line of Sutter, Cooke and one of Kennedy or Morrow should draw the Krejci line at home and this is one thing Boston can expose. You can see here that Sutter's line is getting very tough matchups and they've been getting pummeled on the shot clock by other team's top lines. I would expect Krejci's line to do the same against them and that could play a huge difference if Bergeron is able to beat Crosby to a draw. At the very least Pittsburgh's third line likely won't play much of a factor offensively but that could end up not mattering as much if Crosby & Malkin's lines are able to do their thing.
In addition to Bergeron, another tough matchup Crosby will be up against is Zdeno Chara, but the rest of the Bruins defense is something the Penguins can expose.
One thing I love about this matchup is that we'll be seeing some of the best players in the league at their respective positions go against each other. Crosby vs. Bergeron should be a great matchup, but it's also going to be very fun to see him play against Zdeno Chara, who I feel is the best defenseman in the NHL. Chara has been very good at both ends of the rink this post-season and might be able to keep Crosby's line in check, but this is going to be the toughest matchup he has seen thus far and I'm interested to see how he handles it. I'm not overly concerned about who his defense partner will be because even Mark Eaton could come away a positive while playing next to Chara. Still though, it's not going to be an easy matchup.
The rest of the Bruins defense corps is a mess. Not in the sense that it's bad but more that I have no clue who is playing or what their pairings will be. Injuries to Dennis Seidenberg and Andrew Ference forced rookies Matt Bartowksi and Torey Krug into action and both played very well in the second round. Krug's benefited from some very easy assignments and has been able to shine as a puck-moving defenseman partially due to that. Bartkowski, on the other hand, played much more difficult minutes and was very impressive even with the big workload. I don't know a ton about him, but from what I've seen, he is a terrific skater and provides a nice fit with Johnny Boychuk on the second defense pairing. I'm not sure if he'll stay there when Ference returns, but he isn't a bad fill-in option for now. At the very least he will stay in the lineup over Wade Redden, who is, uh, not very good.
Whoever makes up Boston's second defense pairing, they are going to have the unfortunate task of playing against Evgeni Malkin's line and that is likely going to be a nightmare for them to handle. I know that Claude Julein likes to double-shift Chara sometimes so that he is always out against a certain forward, so I'm interested to see if he does that to have him out against both Crosby & Malkin. That seems unrealistic, so it will probably mean that Boychuk/Bartkowski/Whoever will likely have to play against Malkin and all I have to say is best of luck to them.
I think Boston is the better team overall but a couple things need to happen for them to win this series. First, both Chara & Bergeron will need to at least limit Crosby's line in some capacity. Boston's first line is playing well enough for Malkin alone not to beat them, but they need to be able to keep at least one of Pittsburgh's top two lines in check. The Bruins have enough great two-way forwards to accomplish this so I think it's possible, albeit very difficult. Secondly, they are going to have to slow down Pittsburgh's power play, which is clicking at at nearly 30% this post-season. Special teams is what helped Pittsburgh take down the Islanders and it could easily do the same this round even if they get outplayed at even strength. Boston's penalty kill was dominant during the regular season but has struggled in the playoffs, allowing seven goals despite not giving up that many shots. The Bruins will also need someone other than Krejci's line to produce offensively, but I think Jagr, Seguin & Peverley are due to break out so I don't see this being that much of a problem.
Stats courtesy of Behind The Net
This is a tough call because a few things need to go right in order for Boston to win while Pittsburgh has only gotten this far because a lot of things have gone in their favor in the first rounds. Boston might end up dominating the Penguins at even strength but Vokoun could continue to be a wall and completely shut them down. On the other hand, Bergeron might struggle against Crosby and Boston won't have an answer for Malkin's line which will result in Pittsburgh winning deceisvely. In a close call like this, I usually go with the better even strength club, which are the Bruins in this case. Pittsburgh's riding a little too high on percentages for my liking and the B's have enough talent to at least keep Pittsburgh's stars in check. It is tough to pick against Pittsburgh, but I think Boston wins this in six games.